April 29, 2012
U.S. military superiority has helped maintain stability around the globe and keep peace for nearly 70 years. Our air superiority has meant that no U.S. soldier, sailor or marine has been killed by enemy airplanes in nearly six decades. Air power is now central to joint war-fighting and helped achieve our goals in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
That dominance is now at risk, however, as current defense cuts threaten to do what no enemy can: end U. S. control of the skies. If we weaken our air superiority, our country’s entire war-fighting strategy will be forced to change. We will no longer be able to operate anywhere on the globe without risk.
U.S. air power is like oxygen: You don’t notice it until it starts disappearing. The Air Force provides the central ingredient for nearly all military operations: real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; cybernetworking; battle-space air control; strategic airlift and medical evacuation; full-spectrum bombing; and combat air support, among other capabilities.
Combined with the Navy’s sea-based air power, the Air Force provides an iron umbrella for U.S. military personnel — whether they are engaged in tactical operations, full-scale campaigns or humanitarian relief.
As a result, the U.S. can conduct military operations around the world without fear of losing communications, facing a significant enemy threat or not having enough airplanes to do whatever job the president directs.
If current budget trends continue, however, the Air Force will slowly become less able to do its job. Not because our airmen are less capable but because we will be starving them of the materials they need: airplanes, bases and support systems. In fact, we now have the smallest Air Force in over six decades, and it is only going to shrink further.
The Air Force already plans to shed nearly 500 aircraft in the coming years, when taking into account retirement of older airplanes and delays in procuring replacements. We are cutting our force of aging F-15 and F-16 fighters by more than 200 planes long before we have the F-35s available to replace them.
In addition, our potential adversaries have learned the lessons of U.S. air superiority. They are actively building up their own air forces and air defenses to be able to deny U.S. forces access to their airspace.
China is rapidly building its fleet of advanced fighters and attack planes, as well as moving ahead on its first aircraft carrier. Both Russia and China are building stealth fighters to compete with our small force of F-22s. And Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran and others are installing sophisticated integrated air defense systems impervious to all but our stealth F-22 fighters and B-2 bombers. (We just have 20 B-2s.)
Given the importance of air dominance to our strategy, we must reverse the deterioration of the Air Force or face the likely scenario in which we won’t have enough air assets to do the job of protecting U.S. interests and defending allies.
First, we should reconstitute our fighter fleet. Our F-15s and F-16s are rapidly aging, but the F-35 program is not yet proven. While we must forge ahead on the F-35, we also must seriously consider reopening the F-22 line. Despite some serious problems over the past year, the F-22 remains the world’s most advanced air dominance fighter.
Second, we must commit to building a new long-range bomber in sufficient numbers to ensure the ability to reach far inland anywhere on Earth. We should aim at a fleet of no fewer than 200 of these next-generation, stealth bombers, which can carry both conventional and nuclear weapons. Restoring our bomber ability provides flexibility in times of crisis that may prove essential to maintaining peace.
Third, we need to commit to expanding our air presence abroad with new partnerships and upgraded bases that can survive missile attack. In Eastern Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, U.S. fighter, cargo and intelligence-surveillance planes need to be able to respond quickly to disturbances, both natural and man-made.
Fourth, we must further develop our cyber capabilities on both offense and defense to be able to target adversaries and protect our networked forces.
The Air Force’s mission “is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of America and its global interests — in air, space and cyberspace.”
These four goals can help reconstitute our air power, preserve our command of the air and allow the Joint Force to carry out any mission entrusted to it by the commander in chief. Together, they will enable the Air Force to fly, fight and win in the complex security environment of tomorrow.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) is chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and founder and co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus.